During my two-and-a-half months as Jeff Van Gundy’s “co-worker,” I never saw him smile. Not once. As an intern covering the Houston Rockets for the team’s official Web site, I ran into head coach Jeff Van Gundy on multiple occasions — and never once saw him smile.
He would smirk. He would stifle a laugh. He would furrow his eyebrows and think intensively; apparently annoyed at the line of questioning that was thrown his way.
But he never smiled.
I remember when I was able to get my first interview with Coach Van Gundy. I was both thrilled and nervous. After all, I figured Van Gundy would see me as a rookie in the sports industry and surely feel that my questions deserved nothing less then the most basic answers — even though I had spent hours upon hours thinking up questions.
The appointment (it was much more of an appointment than an interview) was scheduled for 2 in the afternoon and took place a few weeks before training camp began. I waited with the director of media relations for the Rockets, standing outside of Van Gundy’s office until we received the OK to enter his kingdom. Fortunately, he was right on time.
I walked in scared out of my shoes, as this was a man I had respected and looked up to ever since he was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks approximately nine years ago. However, this was also the same man who had the gall to tell Michael Jordan that he manipulated opponents by being their friend, coaxing opponents to take it easy while Jordan ripped them apart.
Van Gundy was sitting at a long desk about 10 feet from the entrance.Tired bags wore deep impressions beneath his eyes, a sign of the late nights watching game tape or drawing up plays. He sported a white shirt with black, bolded lettering that read "Houston Rockets." A television was situated on the opposite wall, and a box of coaches’ shirts was placed beside his desk. There were two seats, and then a bench along the back wall. I walked up and shook Van Gundy’s hand as the director of media relations introduced us and asked the coach to “take it easy on him since he’s new and young.”
Van Gundy had a smirk on his face, and then asked me how I liked my job so far. I told him I loved it, and he gave me a disgusted look, then said, “Bull****!”
We laughed. Realizing his line of work and the stress that comes with it, I quickly reworded my sentence. “Well, I love it because of the work I do.” Van Gundy nodded with a short laugh, clearly amazed at how anybody could love working in sports.
We sat down and recorded the interview. He was not very responsive and actually dismissed many of my questions, instead offering answers that were based on a line of questioning that was taking place in his own head.
I asked him what he thought of Rockets offseason acquisitions Derek Anderson and Stromile Swift, and Van Gundy said, "I don’t know. We’ll see." I asked what type of legacy he would like to leave as Rockets coach. "Legacy? I don’t worry about that. I let fans worry about it."
I respected him for his honesty, but was hoping he would open up more. I can’t say that I was disappointed with the interview, as I knew not to expect to much.
As I continued to work for the organization, I found other slight nuances that seemed to make Van Gundy rather unique, even by NBA coaching standards. He does not allow pictures of players who appear fatigued by placing their hands on their knees to be displayed on the team site.
He is also extremely aware of what is said and written about the Rockets, and even expects the beat writers who cover the team to run any less-than-flattering topics by him before they see print.
It’s now two months into the season, and the Rockets are 11-18. Van Gundy won his 100th game as Houston coach a few weeks ago against Atlanta.
Apparently blind toward the fact that injuries have hindered the Rockets’ star player and starting point guard, fans and media are asking whether Van Gundy is the right coach for this particular ball club.
Whenever an argument is made, I can’t help but trace back to that initial interview I had with him. I remember interviewing him after practices and for him to be unhappy with how the team performed, always wanting perfection — always wanting more. I remember when Jon Barry had re-signed with the Rockets in early August and how assistant coaches and staff were sitting in a dark video room, pouring over game tape.
So it would be hard for me to say that Van Gundy is the reason for the Rockets’ disappointing start.
This is a man who has no other purpose in life other than to win basketball games. This is a man who has been known to be more satisfied with losses than victories. This is a man for whom I waited to interview three hours on two occasions, waiting for the team to finish practicing.
Van Gundy had an all-time record of a 350-246 entering the season, and has reached the playoffs in eight of his nine years. He is 41-40 in the playoffs.
That is why it seems that Van Gundy is someone who could find hell in heaven. He is happiest when he is most miserable. Growing up in a family mired in the art of coaching, he was taught to find faults and errors in the game he loved most. His father was a superb basketball coach who retired from the game after four decades of coaching, while Jeff and brother Stan toiled in the basketball underworld until gaining assistant coaching positions — Jeff in New York and Stan in Miami. Both then became head coaches in their own right, each taking pride in effort, unselfishness, and character as foundations of their respective styles of play.
A graduate of Nazareth College, a Division III program, Van Gundy loathes attention and seeks victory, nothing more or less. He will disrespect himself before disrespecting his team, taking a fatherly approach towards his comments to the media. During my time with the Rockets, many Houston reporters joked that Van Gundy would like nothing more than to play the games before an empty house and relay nothing beyond the the final score to fans.
It’s natural for followers of a sports team to castigate the head coach before the players. It’s only natural to be hesitant when it comes to holding the athletes accountable, since they are more exposed and attractive to fans than the coaches.
But if Rockets loyalists are hoping for another coach who works harder and who demands more, they won’t find anyone who can do the job better than Van Gundy. Not Phil Jackson (who, while intriguing, clearly has other intentions/motives aside from just winning ball games), Larry Brown (see: Phil Jackson), or Gregg Popovich (who pretty much IS the San Antonio Spurs franchise).
It should be a comforting thought for Rockets fans knowing that Van Gundy is more concerned with the detail and results of coaching, opposed to its exposure and distinct aura. He is what every NBA coach should desire to be, but what very few actually are.
Even if they never smile.